7 Lessons I learned as a Seasonal Retail Worker.

Over the summer, I joined thousands of Silicon Valley techies in a group no one wants to be a member of: Unemployed via Reduction-in-Force (you can read my full update on it here).

At the time, I thought what was happening in the technology and startup space was a reflection of the economy as a whole — it wasn’t. Instead, it resulted from bloated, post-pandemic hiring sprees that were now left without the backing of venture capital.

In my case, poor leadership and an incredibly toxic culture led to drastic cuts. In a Catch-22-like fate, I found myself in a situation I know all too well.

I thanked my former self for squirreling away $20,000 in savings and hunkered down as I applied to hundreds of writing jobs in tech, SaaS, and Digital Marketing, you name it.

I went on a few interviews, did test assignments, met with a professional to improve my resume and even read a book on how to get better at interviews. The results?

I felt judged, anxious, and worthless.

My savings kept me afloat, along with a few freelance gigs and sales from my Etsy Shop, but the future looked bleak.

It was about that time I saw an email from a beauty retailer I loved saying they were hiring seasonal workers. I clicked it open to read more.

This kind of gig is not new to me. In 2014, when I was let go of my first salaried job, I sought retail work to prevent getting evicted. One of the jobs I had was being a seasonal employee for Anthropologie.

I lived less than a block from the store, so I walked to my shifts. Seasonal employees were only trained to greet customers, assist with the dressing rooms, straighten clothes, and keep those fabulous volcano candles lit. It was pretty easy work, but I wasn’t sure I’d have the same luck this time.

Looking at that email in October, the thought of working retail gave me a small pit in my stomach. But I had to do something — so I applied.

I was hired within a week, and I started working at the beginning of November. After nearly 90 days on the job, I wanted to share what I’ve learned.

Lesson 1: Retail is not for the weak

I’ve been working from the comfort of my apartment since 2018. Prior to working retail, I spent most of my work life sitting at my desk or sometimes lying in bed. Retail work requires a level of physicality that, in the past, has taken its toll on me.

To survive a retail shift, you must be able to stand on your feet for nearly the entirety of a shift, which could be anywhere from four to nine hours.

In most cases, you can’t rely on comfy tennis shoes to ease your pain. At my job, sneakers or athletic shoes of any kind aren’t allowed unless you cough up a doctor’s note — and how many part-time retail workers do you think have health insurance and/or regular healthcare providers?

I transitioned from my sedentary lifestyle with the help of my Rothy’s loafers and then used Rothy’s cash I’d saved from referral codes to buy myself a second pair. I’m saying in all sincerity that these shoes have saved my legs from buckling after eight hours behind a cash register.

In a typical week, I work 28-32 hours at my retail job. At least, those are the hours I’m paid for — retail work requires its staff to be ready to work, which takes time off the clock. By this, I mean I have to ensure I’m clean and presentable to arrive at work.

Once I was hired, I ventured to Goodwill to get a few “new” outfits that met the company dress code and to prevent me from having to do laundry every night. Showering and doing my makeup and hair before a shift may sound like no big deal, but I wasn’t putting on outfits or steaming my clothes before every Zoom meeting in my past life.

I always pack food (+ treats) for each retail shift!

At my retail job, we have to be healthy for every shift. Upon clocking in, every employee must complete a self-assessment. Got a fever? If so, you can’t work or get paid.

Walk into any corporate office in America, or jump on a call with any given startup, and there’ll be a handful of overworked employees coughing and sniffling because they refuse to take a paid sick day (see also: toxic work culture).

To keep myself healthy, I drink less, I invested in good-smelling hand sanitizer to keep at the cash register, I take vitamins, and I consume loads of Liquid IV.

I also wasn’t driving to work in the past, and my retail commute is approximately 20 minutes each way.

It all adds up to time away from life and leisure, and is time dedicated to retail work that often goes without notice.

Aside from the physical burden, retail can be mentally exhausting. I’ll expand on this in a later lesson, but I think you all have an idea of the stress and emotional toll consumers can put on retail workers.

Lesson 2: Retail pay is not a reflection of my worth

At my last salaried job, I was making around $75,000 annually. When I get a freelance gig, I charge $65/hour. At that rate, I can work 20 hours per week without making myself sick or getting burned out.

In Texas, the minimum wage is $7.25/hour.

At my retail job, I make $14.25/hour.

You don’t have to be a math wiz to see the difference between what I normally charge for work vs. what I’m getting at the retail job. It takes a lot of hours of retail work to get a decent paycheck.

When I work 32 hours of retail, it’s $456 before taxes. That same amount of hours for a freelance gig would send me $2,080.

For context, my monthly rent for a 500-square-foot apartment is $1425.

It took me a few retail shifts to swallow that part of the humble pie I was eating.

During my first week on the job, I held back tears on my 15-minute break to prevent myself from 1. ruining my makeup that took 20 minutes to apply at home, and 2. wallowing in a pool of self-pity created by America’s societal standards.

There I was, 37 years old, working a job where most of my coworkers are in college studying to do something bigger with their futures. I’d been there, too.

I went to college in 2003, I worked a retail job after getting out of class, and I graduated in four years with a decent GPA and a degree I thought was going to secure my place in corporate America.

And yet, 20 years later, I felt tired, confused, and unwanted by my professional peers.

I took ONE weekend off during the holiday season to visit Nashville — a gift to myself!

I found solace in the grind of my shifts. I focused on each customer, and even found bits of joy in helping them find the right gifts for their loved ones.

Without realizing it, my coworkers’ horror stories of rude customers provided me with comfort in times when the world felt ugly and cold.

After years of earning paychecks, I finally learned that the number on them has nothing to do with my worth as a person or a professional.

I was doing what I had to do, and I was doing it no matter what people would think of me — whether it was customers in the store, my younger coworkers, or my freelance clients.

I was doing what I’ve always done, and it’s what keeps me going in hard times: every situation has possibilities, and I was going to embrace this one with a smile.

Lesson 3: Retail shoppers spend big bucks

My first salaried job was in higher education. After working there for seven years, I moved to Austin to join the growing tech scene and dip my fingertips into digital marketing, including SEO and blogging.

I have spent the last seven years learning about and writing for companies selling software, access to online platforms, and chat automation. I’ve written thousands of blog posts, social media updates, webinar copy, downloadable ebooks, and email funnels.

And for the most post, I’ve been told that consumer habits are constantly shifting toward digital efforts and online shopping. Brick-and-mortar retail is dead, and buy-online-pickup-in-store is the only thing to get customers in the door.

Really? Then why the hell are there lines wrapped around the building in the store where I work? On a slow day, this single store sells $30,000+ in products, most of which are under $50 each.

One day in December, we sold $10,000 only on fragrances. I multiplied that number by the number of retail locations in the country and it was $13 million in a SINGLE DAY just on perfumes and cologne.

I continue to be shocked at the long lines, even post-holiday season, and the amount of money folks are dropping on unnecessary purchases. On days when it’s raining, freezing cold, or breezy and beautiful — a day when I’d spend it anywhere but in a store — consumers are packing the aisles and pulling out their wallets.

Let me say this: Brick-and-mortar retail is far from dead.

Lesson 4: Digital trends carryover IRL

While in-person retail isn’t dead, the influence of digital trends is visible every single day at my job.

I’m not on TikTok, but I see the tangible results of its trends as I’m ringing up hundreds of tubes of Essence False Lash Effect Mascara, white eyeliner pencils and eyelash curlers thanks to Alix Earle, tools for lymphatic drainage massages, makeup to recreate Wednesday Addam’s glam, and anything with “Niacinimide” in the ingredients list.

And don’t get me started on the number of teenagers with pristine skin coming into the store and dropping $100+ to buy anything from Drunk Elephant.

I make it a point to play with Blanche every chance I get. I hate being away from her during my shifts.

My point is, trends online don’t just stay there. People get inspired, and they’re jazzed enough about a lipliner that they get in their car and spend their money on products they saw someone use online.

It baffles me — why not just order it online? Instant gratification, I suppose.

Let me be clear, there’s no judgment from me. As a beauty and skincare junkie, I love seeing people get excited about getting creative with expressing themselves. Beauty has always been an interest of mine, and after years of being in cis-male-driven workplaces, I am grateful to be able to meet and talk to others about cosmetic products we love and use daily.

Lesson 5: Trumpers carry their audacity everywhere

People have been rude way before Trump was a fetus. But, the rise of Trumpism (Q-ANON and other extreme alt. right groups included) made it okay, acceptable even, to be a complete asshole to everyone in the room.

During my second shift on the job, a customer threw a pile of high-end hair products at me after I asked her if she could repeat her phone number for me.

“I don’t want to fucking deal with someone that’s hard of hearing,” she snarled.

I’m not hard of hearing. I was new on the job, overwhelmed, scared, and tired after working 12 consecutive days at the polls for Early Voting.

Regardless, are people with less-than-perfect hearing not allowed to have jobs? Her comment was ableist, rude, and a true reflection of the behavior that’s celebrated within Trump’s circle.

Don’t believe me? If you want to know why healthcare is inaccessible, why women’s rights are damn-near dead, why education is crumbling, why the minimum wage isn’t enough to live on, look to what’s happening in Congress, and where they’re seeking influence (and who’s paying them).

During a shift on New Year’s Day, a woman hurled a collection of CBD-based lotion across the counter and told my manager and me that we were “The laziest, rudest bitches ever.”

As she walked out of the door, she suggested we were ableist and that we were “sitting on our fat asses.” She then came back into the store to ask me if I was racist, and to tell me, “If you want to chit-chat, you should do it when you’re not being paid to work.”

I’m here to confirm that she was indeed not the CEO of the company where we work, nor are we being paid by her or her tax dollars.

There’s a group of people in the world that believe retail workers deserve to be treated like garbage, and if I had a Venn Diagram of that population vs. Trumpers, I’d bet money on the overlapping portion being pretty big.

Lesson 6: There are many benefits to working retail

Despite the handful of disgruntled customers, the demanding schedule, and the comparibly low pay of retail work, I’m here to say it doesn’t all suck.

One of the first benefits I noticed about my retail job is the people I get to work with. It’s a diverse group that’s all trying to find a way to make things work in one way or another.

For some, this retail job is a stop on their journey. For others, it’s an admirable part of their career. They are college students, estheticians, and moms. Another seasonal worker was also a fellow techie, trying to survive life after layoff.

Of course, I had some amazing coworkers at past salaried jobs — many of whom I still keep in touch with. But, I often worked remotely, and didn’t get to interact with them the way I get to with my retail coworkers and customers.

My retail schedule wasn’t conducive to attending AFF, but I had one night free & meet up with friends I met at the writer’s retreat.

The other perk is that, while I do wish we made more money, it’s consistent pay that adds up. I’m not saying it’s enough to live reasonably live on, because it’s not.

But, added in with my savings account, my freelance gigs, and my Etsy Shop, I’ve managed to survive, and I will be forever grateful for that.

The company I work for also pays us every Friday, which is helpful in a pinch. Every employee — even part-timers — have free access to 24/7 counseling and can participate in the company’s 5% retirement match contribution program.

I thought I gave up regular paychecks and retirement contributions when I got laid off, but now I’m back at it, and it feels good.

Finally, I feel really appreciated at my retail job. For once, it feels like my punctuality and my dependability are appreciated, if not celebrated.

I arrive early for shifts, I put a smile on, and I’m dressed ready to work. At a startup, none of that matters. I’d venture to say that having a good attitude at a startup is damn-near a prescription for working 24/7 and participating in burn-out culture.

Lesson 7: Most career paths are not linear

The most significant lesson I’ve learned working retail is that my career does not have to follow a specific path.

I was put on this earth to be a storyteller, and that can take many forms.

It has never been my goal to be some star employee at a startup or a tech company — I’ve gotten those jobs because they pay my bills.

My ultimate goal is to write, write, write, and get paid for it. I want to write and sell scripts for movies, for TV and streaming services.

In order to get there, I have to keep my eye on the prize.

No one in the screenwriting field is going to judge me for getting scrappy and working a retail job in my 30s. The IRS nor the bill collectors are going to care where my money is coming from (as long as it’s legal).

So, I’m going to keep on figuring things out as I go.

When Derek and I interviewed Zeina Kronfol from Sea Rock Coaching (you can listen to the entire episode here), she said it’s important to take a break (reasonably, if you’re able) from your typical work to prevent bringing baggage to your next job.

I didn’t even realize that’s what I’ve been doing! Working retail has been a much-needed break from a painful cycle of getting laid off, getting hired, being excited, and then being terrified of losing my job.

What’s next for me? I don’t have a clear picture. I’m still working retail, I’m still doing freelance work (and looking for more — see my services + contact me here), and I’m still running the Etsy Shop.

I’m still making ends meet by dipping into my dwindling savings account.

But I’m also attending screenwriting meetings, working on my scripts, and trying to keep the creative juices flowing.

I’ve learned that life is never going to be a smooth day of sailing. There’s always going to be a wave forming; or clean up after a squall. Life is truly about learning to handle all of it and enjoying every drop.

To see more writing from me, be sure to subscribe to The Bitter Lemon by clicking “subscribe” on the right side of your screen. Want even more? Subscribe to my newsletter to get roundups, book recs and lifestyle tips. 

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